Saturday, August 18, 2012

Washington ... turning from politics to alcohol

When George Washington’s second term as president ended in early 1797, his attention turned in large measure to a new endeavor – making whiskey. The idea came from his farm manager James Anderson, who had previous distillery experience in his native Scotland and Virginia. Anderson pointed out to Washington that a distillery would be a big success, taking advantage of his grist mill, a good supply of running water, and crops grown on Washington’s Mount Vernon lands, according to information from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DSCUS).

Initially, Washington had his reservations about the proposal, writing that “idlers (of which, and bad people there are many around it) under pretence of coming there with grist could not be restrained from visiting the Distillery, nor probably from tempting the Distiller, nay more robbing the Still; as the Mill would always afford a pretext for coming to that place.” But soon he came around, and authorized Anderson to establish the distillery at the Mount Vernon estate’s grist mill.

The initial distillery operation, overseen daily by Anderson’s son, with the help of a hired assistant and six slaves, became successful quickly. By early 1798, a new, stone distillery building was completed, housing five stills with a total capacity of 616 gallons – a much bigger operation that the typical distillery of the time, which had only one or two stills, according to the DSCUS.  In addition, Washington’s distillery building – measuring 75 by 30 feet – was the largest distillery in the country at the time.

Whiskey production reached nearly 11,000 gallons in 1799, valued at about $7,500 then (in the neighborhood of $100,000 in today’s dollars). The recipe called for 60 percent rye, 35 percent corn, and 5 percent malted barley. Because it wasn’t aged, the whiskey was clear – looking similar to moonshine. But Washington’s operation was legal, and he paid federal taxes on his stills.

After Washington died in 1799, his will left the distillery to a relative, who leased the operation to others. Production appears to have declined over the years, ending by 1815.

More recently, archeologists began exploring the site in 1997. The effort received a substantial boost in 2001, when the DSCUS supported the project with a $2.1 million grant that also allowed reconstruction of the distillery. The reconstructed, working distillery opened to the public in 2007.

And yes, you can buy whiskey produced by the distillery when limited amounts are produced today. It was last available in April 2012, when 600 bottles (375 milliliters each) were offered at $95 each. And you could only buy it by visiting Mount Vernon’s gift shop or the nearby gristmill and distillery.

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